A More Humane Law For Students

John P. Dellera. Photo from John P. Dellera

John P. Dellera. Photo from John P. Dellera

If your son throws a tantrum, do you tie him to a chair? If your daughter screams and upsets her brothers and sisters, do you duct tape her mouth? Do you put your child in solitary confinement – like a prison inmate – for misbehaving?

Believe it or not, all of these things have happened in public schools to the most vulnerable children: those with special needs.

The state Legislature has made all of that illegal.

House Bill 1796 “prohibits the use of seclusion in public schools; establishes conditions and procedures for the use of restraint in public schools; and requires collection and review of data. Requires reports. Makes an appropriation.”

The so-called “restraint and seclusion bill” almost got lost in a legislative snafu but was rescued and ultimately passed last week. John Dellera, an attorney and former executive director of Hawaii Disability Rights Center, monitored the bill closely as it wound its way through the process. He admits he was surprised it survived and was passed. “I was not very optimistic, ’cause it really does move Hawaii from one of the worst states in the nation to one of the best.”

So what, exactly, does this new legislation mean for special needs children?

One, it prohibits seclusion, Dellera says. “The seclusion defined as putting a child in a room or space where they’re isolated. The confinement of a student in a room or structure, put in a closet, barricaded…”

In other words, solitary confinement.

Two, the bill prohibits chemical and mechanical restraints. In other words, teachers and aides cannot tie up children or give them medication that isn’t prescribed by the child’s physician.

Dellera says all of that has happened in Hawaii schools.

“Students in various schools have been subjected to duct taping, arms and hands tied behind their back, mouths duct taped, held under teachers’ desks …”

Three, there are new restrictions and rules for physically restraining a child. It specifies that physical restraint is prohibited unless a student’s behavior poses an imminent danger of property damage or physical injury to the student, school personnel or others, and only after less intrusive interventions have failed or been deemed inappropriate.

Dellera says the new law also “requires notification to parents within 24 hours (if a child has to be physically restrained).”

The bill requires that the school notify parents immediately either verbally or electronically with a written notification within 24 hours. The law also requires schools to give parents, at least annually, written information about policies and procedures for restraints.

And just as important as the new rules themselves, lawmakers have included ways to help schools meet the new requirements. DOE Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi, who supported the bill in written testimony, asked that funds be provided for training.

The training is critical. Children with autism, for example, often act out in frustration because they are unable to make their needs understood.

Dellera says, “Teachers don’t know how to deal with the frustration and anxiety the kids suffer … don’t know how to redirect or diffuse the situation.”

In order to ensure they do, lawmakers included an appropriation of $250,000 to be used to collect data and to provide the necessary training. Both are hugely important: Training will help eliminate or at least drastically reduce the need for restraints. Collecting data will help educators understand if the restraints they are still using are proper and necessary.

This is a huge win for everyone who collaborated: advocates for children, the special needs community, parents, lawmakers and educators.

“The system really did work very well,” says Dellera.